Excerpted from: Demetria Frank and Daniel Kiel, Where Do We Go from Here: Memphis and the Legacy of Dr. King's Unfinished Work, 49 University of Memphis Law Review 1 (Fall, 2018) (93 Footnotes) (Full Document)

The question we consider in this Essay is the question posed in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final book: Where Do We Go From Here? However, whereas Dr. King's question identified here as a moment within the civil rights movement, we consider here not only as a moment but also as a place. Here is 2018, and here is Memphis, Tennessee. Given what has unfolded in a half century since Dr. King's tragic visit to Memphis in 1968 and where this community sits in 2018, the importance of the question both as to this moment in time and as to this place is undeniable. Considering where we have come from, where we are, and, crucially, where we go from here, this Essay highlights several of the areas in which Dr. King's activism was most pronounced and the ways in which those topics remain of great relevance within Memphis


Commemorating the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike, the confrontation that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the site of his tragic assassination, was bound to be complex. The series of half-century commemorations of civil rights movement events that had been unfolding at least since the commemorations of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004 each had to thread a needle between celebrating victories of the past while acknowledging shortfalls of the present and encouraging a continuing struggle into the future. But the commemorations in Memphis would face the added challenge of identifying a victory powerful enough to counterbalance the immensity of the loss of Dr. King. The difficulty was even greater because, both symbolically and substantively, Memphis provided reminders of the incompleteness of the work

In the months leading up to the commemoration events of April 2018, several of these symbolic reminders were at the center of public discussion. Atop a tall pedestal in the center of a lush park less than 100 yards north of The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law loomed the figure of Jefferson Davis, the lone president of the Confederate States of America. Several miles away, an equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder, loomed over another City park adjacent to, improbably, Union Avenue. To some, perhaps, the statues had become unnoticed parts of the scenery, but to many others in this majority African American city, the statues and their origins remained hurtful reminders of a history of intolerance and bigotry. With April 2018 approaching as a moment when the eyes of the world would return to Memphis a half century after those eyes had seen Dr. King lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, staining not only the balcony but also the community where the blood was spilled, the presence of the statues was becoming increasingly inconvenient

Among the commemorations of April 2018 was the gathering that led thought leaders from across the country to consider that question posed in Dr. King's last book, “Where do we go from here?” Many of the participants have contributed ideas to this Law Review book with focus on topics central to Dr. King's work: poverty, voting rights, criminal justice, and activism. Implicit in the framing of the question was the fact that there remains an immense amount of work to be done on these fronts. That reality--the substantive incompleteness of the movement Dr. King led--is difficult to deny in Memphis

During the fall of 2017, the looming problem was that the commemorations threatened to be overwhelmed not only with the substantive shortfalls of the present but also with the symbols of the past. The continued presence of the Confederate president in a park would only amplify the discord between commemoration and reality. Local activists had been mounting pressure on City leaders to tear the statues down for months, and the closer April 2018 approached, the more intense the pressure on City leaders became

Of course, the presence or absence of statues of Confederate presidents and generals would not change the substantive reality in Memphis in 2018, but these statues were powerful symbols of a failure to progress, both on the ideals represented in Dr. King's work and on the practical demands of the strikers who brought him here. Unlike the facts on the ground, the statues were something that could, in theory, be removed. Indeed, before the calendar turned to 2018, the statues were gone, the controversial result of selling the City parks to a local non-profit group that quickly removed the Davis and Forrest statues. With their removal, at least one embarrassment could be avoided when the eyes of the world returned. But even with these symbols down, a discouraging reality remained

B. The Reality

Poverty brought Dr. King to Memphis. As he geared up the Poor People's Campaign and shifted his emphasis from racial discrimination to economic inequality, Dr. King was drawn to the plight of Memphis sanitation workers who were standing up for recognition of their dignity and the value of their labor. The specific issue was the right of the sanitation workers to form a union to advocate for better pay and working conditions, and the specific trigger was a truck malfunction that resulted in the gruesome deaths of two sanitation workers, but the ingredients for a movement had long been present. Those ingredients included racialized economic inequality and substantial numbers of Memphians, particularly Black Memphians, living in poverty. They also included the legacy of legalized racial segregation and continued segregated realities in the community's neighborhoods, schools, and lived experiences. The City's power dynamic was racialized as well, represented by the juxtaposition of the Black sanitation workers lobbying the City's White power structure

Though the strike was resolved several weeks after Dr. King's assassination--with a raise of fifteen cents for the sanitation workers and recognition of the union ingredients remained long after. As the commemoration events of 2018 approached, poverty and economic inequality stubbornly stood at the center of virtually every local challenge. Even the striking workers themselves remained economically vulnerable, several of them still on the job after a half century and uncertain when they might be able to retire. Like the confederate statues, this fact revealed a lack of progress, and the City provided $50,000 grants to the surviving workers in 2017 as salve for a lifetime of working poverty

Just as they had in 1968, the economic circumstances of the sanitation workers symbolized deeper currents in the community. To document the extent of Memphis's poverty in 2018, the National Civil Rights Museum commissioned University of Memphis social work professor Elena Delavega to author The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK. According to the report, 16% of Shelby County residents live in poverty, a figure that is largely unchanged since 1970. Those figures place Memphis among the metropolitan areas with the highest poverty levels

And though the sanitation strike was primarily a movement fighting against poverty, it was not a coincidence that all the striking workers were African American. In Memphis, poverty cannot be disentangled from race, and The Poverty Report made this point as well. For example, while the county's overall poverty rate is 16%, the figure for African Americans is 24.3%, more than four times higher than for whites (5.5%). Although the African American poverty rate has decreased since 1970 (when it was 36.9%), these persistent disparities demonstrate that Dr. King's commitment to economic justice was well founded

These statistics regarding poverty and economic and racial inequality have become a defining feature of Memphis in 2018, and they are worth exploring in two divergent directions. First, they are results of a community structured for inequality that has yet to substantially reform inequality-producing systems, such as in education, housing, or criminal justice. Second, they make reform work of those systems even more challenging because of the disadvantages poverty imposes on people. In the following sections, we will consider several of the topics of the MLK50 Symposium from these two perspectives, focusing on here: Memphis

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Notwithstanding great obstacles in each of these areas, Dr. King's dream of equitable access to American democratic institutions is still very much alive in Memphis. Like much of the country, Memphis especially experienced a very long pause in regular activism following Dr. King's death. Nevertheless, in the past several years Memphians have addressed a number of social justice issues, including the removal of confederate statues, voter turnout, living wages, youth justice intervention, and law enforcement accountability. These movements have reignited hope that might one day overshadow the stain of King's death that figuratively plagues Memphis's progress

As a result of this prolific activism and a reminder that some things never change, however, it was recently necessary that a federal judge rule that the City of Memphis's gathering of “political intelligence” against local activists violated a forty-year agreement against spying on demonstrators. That 1978 consent decree came following the finding of an entire Memphis Police Department unit created and committed to spy on anti-war and civil rights demonstrators who had not otherwise violated the law. Following a 2016 “die in” protest at Mayor Jim Strickland's home highlighting police brutality against African American citizens, a “list” of the demonstrators was created disallowing those citizens access to City Hall, among other surveillance measures. The list was later supplemented with other locally known activists, including participants in the Interstate 40 bridge protest led by #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators highlighting the same problem earlier that year

The chilling effect of law enforcement sanctioned intelligence surveilling cannot be understated--such tactics are meant to intimidate and stifle public dissent on very real human rights issues. Citizen surveillance also impacts the economic prospects of demonstrators and activists and encourages perpetual harassment and targeting by law enforcement. Ultimately, the surveilling of discontent citizens breaches the securities of democratic government while igniting fear that those holding citizen best interest at heart might be subject to the same demise as the fallen leader Dr. King

Although the products of inequity have not changed, a number of developments have proven extremely valuable in the modern fight for social justice and political power. Although peaceful grassroots efforts are still at the heart of Memphis social movements, the face of advocacy, its leaders, and the means of producing awareness have transformed. Memphis activists have learned from the past in addressing social inequity, exercising traditional methods of activism such as public protests and voter registration initiatives. Modern Memphis activism also relies on a combination of tactics that includes backing and assistance from a plethora of non-profit organizations and educational institutions and programming that develops the resources and skills of Memphis citizens, such as community garden development, a number of youth services, and workforce training

Social media and digital activism have helped move the needle toward modern progress across the nation and in Memphis. Not only has social media provided a means for citizens to connect with others that share passion on issues they care about, but it has also created opportunities to engage very personally with local activists and causes. After years of silence on many issues, social media has ultimately given individuals the permission to know they are not alone in addressing the issues they find problematic. In Memphis, a variety of movements, individuals, and organizations have used social media to both promote planned activities that strategically address injustice, as well as organize quickly for demonstrations that show community strength and support of modern causes and mishaps. This modern exercise of power allows citizens to direct anger and unrest into productive activities and positive actions quickly and efficiently

Additionally, the availability of data and social awareness psychology, such as implicit bias research, has equipped activists, experts, attorneys, and educators with ammunition that challenges public perception on how to equitably address many social justice issues. Such literature has also increased national awareness of the prevalence of persistent poverty and compound impacts of bias due to the history of race in America. Going forward, the hope is that community stakeholders, including political leadership, will use data-driven solutions that include fluid community-based responses in partnership with impacted populations

Fifty years after his death, Dr. King's influence is unquestionable even if his legacy has gone unfulfilled. If the current designation of leadership is at all telling of where Memphis is headed in realizing Dr. King's legacy, however, the future looks brighter. Recently, Shelby County voters overwhelmingly elected county and state leaders that share the ideals of Dr. King in his quest for economic and social equity on behalf of all Americans. Memphians will have the opportunity to do the same with City officials in the near future. Though this provides Memphians with a great sense of pride and much needed optimism, we must remember that throughout history it has always been necessary to regularly exercise collective power in defense of human rights. As we celebrate the life and legacy at this fiftieth anniversary year of Dr. King's death, we must realize that prolonged failure to exercise that collective power has perpetuated harsh systemic realities for the poor and people of color. In deciding the ways to best exercise the newly harnessed political power of Memphians and answering the question of “where do we go from here?,” Dr. King instructed, “[p]ower without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Associate Professor and Director of Diversity & Inclusion, The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

Professor of Law, The University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.